The disturbing rise of antisemitism on elite U.S. campuses

Jewish groups are working to stop this new tide of antisemitism

While Harvard Divinity School student Shabbos Kestenbaum was observing the Sabbath and celebrating the sacred holiday Sukkot, he wasn’t expecting to hear that he should reach out to any of his friends or family in Israel as soon as he could.

But Hamas had begun brutally attacking Israeli civilians as the Saturday sun rose.

As Jewish students at Harvard reached out to loved ones in Israel and at least one Israeli student was called for emergency reserve service, other students on campus were preparing a joint statement, saying Israel was “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”

The Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee issued the statement that eventually more than 30 student organizations signed. The origins of the letter and how groups decided to sign the letter are unclear. The organization’s leaders did not respond to an interview request.

Since then, some student organizations have distanced themselves from the joint statement and one student resigned from the board of a signatory organization because she said she didn’t know her organization signed until it was public.

In an Instagram post, Harvard’s Palestine Solidarity Committee said it “staunchly opposes all violence against innocent life and laments all human suffering.” This clarification came days after the organization had drawn intense public backlash.

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As Hamas inflicted terror on innocent civilians, including children, Kestenbaum said it was “deeply disturbing, at best,” to see his fellow classmates sign a statement like this.

Kestenbaum told me he’s an Orthodox Jew, a two-time Bernie Sanders voter and has been sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but he thinks what happened doesn’t have anything to do with politics. “This is a matter of humanity versus depravity,” he said.

More than 350 Harvard faculty members signed a joint letter denouncing the student organizations’ joint statement. “In the context of the unfolding events, this statement can be seen as nothing less than condoning the mass murder of civilians based only on their nationality,” faculty wrote.

Boaz Barak, Harvard computer science professor and one of the letter’s lead authors, told me he decided to write the letter after hearing Jewish and Israeli students say “they felt isolated and not supported.”

Harvard visiting scholar Rabbi David Wolpe said that he and Barak were at Hillel — Harvard’s center for Jewish students — to show the students support. There, students spoke about how they felt unsafe on campus, and Rabbi Wolpe said Barak told him he was going to write a letter and workshop it with colleagues.

Some Jewish students on campus were shocked by the student groups’ joint statement, but Kestenbaum said it’s more complicated.

“I want to say that it came as a shock and that we would have expected just sympathy or empathy as a given,” Kestenbaum said. “But looking back, I see this as an inevitable culmination of years of intellectual decay.”

As student organizations on campuses across America, from Yale to Stanford, issue statements and op-eds expressing similar sentiments to the Harvard joint statement — blaming Israelis for Hamas’ attack — they have triggered rage and denouncement. But they’ve also revealed an underbelly of antisemitism at elite colleges.

Rabbi Wolpe said he doesn’t want to “paint all campuses with the same brush,” but he said there are some schools with this issue.

“Paradoxically, the more elite the university, the more likely Jews are going to have a hard time there,” Rabbi Wolpe said. “And the Ivy Leagues, unfortunately, are some of the least hospitable.”

It’s not just one anecdote or personal opinion — data shows antisemitism is resurgent on American campuses, just as it is in the U.S. overall.

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Groups like the AMCHA Initiative — “amcha” is a Hebrew word meaning “your people” — and the Brandeis Center have pointed out not only the high volume of antisemitic incidents on college campuses, but also show that some elite colleges like Harvard have the highest number of incidents.

Nearly one-third of Jewish students said they experienced or saw antisemitism on campus, according to an ADL-Hillel survey.

In April 2022, for example, a University of Illinois student who was participating in a protest organized by Students for Justice in Palestine “admitted to police that he threw a rock at students gathered on an outdoor patio at Illini Hillel.” He was charged with a hate crime, which was later dismissed after he wrote an apology letter and did service work at Boston-based Jewish organizations.

Though antisemitism has been bubbling up for a while, now “the unavoidable fact is that there is something monstrous in U.S. college campuses and on U.S. streets,” Kenneth Marcus, founder and leader of the Brandeis Center, told me.

Marcus, who has served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and been a pioneer in combatting antisemitism on college campuses, talked about when some student groups at University of California Berkeley School of Law amended their bylaws to say they wouldn’t invite speakers who support Zionism.

In response to this, Marcus, a Berkeley alum, penned an op-ed arguing this bylaw had the impact of excluding Jewish people. Law school Dean Erwin Chemerinsky reportedly called the bylaw antisemitic, though he also said Marcus’ op-ed was “inflammatory.”

At the heart of the issue is the question of whether or not anti-Zionism equates to antisemitism. Everyone I interviewed said the two were not inherently the same, but statements about Israel can cross over into antisemitism.

The U.S. Department of State’s working definition of antisemitism says that criticizing Israel, like criticizing other countries, is not antisemitic, but “claiming the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is antisemitic.

“While it is possible to object to Israel, to criticize Israel and to be angry at Israel and not be antisemitic, the antisemitism comes in when you reject the legitimacy of Israel,” Rabbi Wolpe said. “And when you are wildly disproportionate in your criticism of Israel as opposed to other places.”

Labeling someone or something as antisemitic has to be done cautiously, Rabbi Wolpe said. “Not everyone who feels sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians is antisemitic.” Where it crosses into antisemitism is when Israeli “is singled out” or “delegitimized.”

“There have been times and places where one could have been opposed to the State of Israel without being antisemitic,” Marcus said. But, nowadays, “the hatred of Israel that we’re seeing in the anti-Zionist movement is simply a continuation of the age-old hatred of the Jewish people under the guise of political discourse.”

To understand how college campuses have ended up seeing a resurgence in antisemitism, it’s important to look at historical context.

In the 1900s, universities like Stanford, Columbia, Rutgers, Harvard and other institutions put caps on the number of Jewish students who could attend. “Quotas” for Jewish students at elite universities would last through the ’50s and ’60s depending on the school. Administrators employed stereotypes in pursuit of these quotas.

Students faced antisemitism in other ways, too. At Emory University students “were forced to repeat courses or were failed solely because they were Jewish.”

Faculty also faced antisemitism. Shelly Tenenbaum wrote about how a Clark University president would discriminate against Jewish people who were candidates for faculty positions on campus. Though universities ceased these practices over time, in recent years antisemitism has arisen in other ways on campus.

Some of the most troubling incidents come from California schools. At San Francisco State University in 2002, 400 Jewish students staged a sit-in for “Peace in the Middle East” and an eyewitness professor said these students were met with antisemitic jeers and death threats.

A University of California Irvine Jewish student endured classmates employing “threatening language and hurtful ethnic slurs” in 2004, and that same year, a Jewish student had a rock thrown toward him. He was wearing a shirt that said “Everybody loves a Jewish boy.”

In 2002, Harvard University president Larry Summers commented on rising antisemitism during a speech at Memorial Church.

“Where anti-Semitism and views that are profoundly anti-Israeli have traditionally been the primary preserve of poorly educated right-wing populists, profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities,” he said.

Summers cited different examples, including Israeli scholars being “forced off the board of an international literature journal,” and his last example included Harvard. He said people at Harvard and other universities “have called for the University to single out Israel among all nations as the lone country where it is inappropriate for any part of the university’s endowment to be invested.”

Summers wasn’t alone in suggesting that anti-Israel sentiment has become closely associated with antisemitism.

Demographer Gary Tobin, in a 2005 brief from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said understanding “the growth of intolerance on campus” comes down to seeing “anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism as part of a combined ideology.”

Tobin clarified this does not mean there’s no legitimate way to criticize Israel. Instead he said some anti-Israeli sentiment mirrored stereotypes and “brutal and conspiratorial charges levied against Jews throughout history.”

As Yair Rosenberg has written for The Atlantic, antisemitism often rears its ugly head through conspiracy, not simply overt epithets and signage. This is one of the ways antisemitism has become so pervasive on college campuses.

When Rosenberg testified in front of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. Congress, he told them antisemitism and anti-Jewish prejudice has more to do with “adherence to a conspiracy of Jewish control” than it does with “identity or background.”

In other words, antisemitism should be understood not only as a personal prejudice, but as a belief system where one scapegoats Jewish people. And one place where Tobin saw that same sort of sentiment manifest was on campuses.

“Anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism on campus have become entwined, so that anti-Israel rhetoric draws from traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes,” Tobin explained. “The ideology of anti-Israelism transfers these stereotypes of traditional anti-Semitism onto discussions about Israel.”

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In 2021, Tablet Magazine reported on survey findings that showed “more-highly educated people in the United States tend to have greater antipathy toward Jews than less-educated people do.”

Leading up to the array of student organizations releasing statements blaming Israel for Hamas’ attack on them, 2022-2023 already saw a significant jump in anti-Israel incidents on college campuses, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

One of the incidents the ADL included was Harvard’s “Apartheid Wall” — a derogatory name for Israel’s West Bank Wall — which was part of the university’s “Apartheid Week.” Kestenbaum mentioned this as one of the instances where he said he saw antisemitism on campus.

Kestenbaum emphasized that “it is important for Palestinian perspectives to be brought on campus,” but he described “Apartheid Week” as “a veiled attempt at telling Jews at Harvard that they’re not welcome on this campus.” Other Jewish students on campus have expressed discomfort at the display, calling it “painful and offensive.”

As recently as this week, according to an account published in The Forward, a Stanford University instructor was suspended after telling Jewish and Israeli students to move with their backpacks into a corner. The teacher then reportedly said, “This is what Israel does to the Palestinians.”

The instructor asked, “How many people died in the Holocaust?” After a student said 6 million, the teacher replied, “Colonizers killed more than 6 million. Israel is a colonizer,” according to The Forward.

Though antisemitism has emerged as a major issue on campuses, both Marcus and Rabbi Wolpe believe strong leadership could improve the situation. Both pointed toward President Joe Biden’s remarks on Israel as an example of strong leadership administrators could emulate.

Marcus also drew attention to former U.S. senator and current University of Florida president Ben Sasse. After last week’s attack on Israel, in an emailed letter to Jewish alums of the university, Sasse wrote:

“I will not tiptoe around this simple fact: What Hamas did is evil and there is no defense for terrorism. This shouldn’t be hard. Sadly, too many people in elite academia have been so weakened by their moral confusion, that, when they see videos of raped women, hear of a beheaded baby, or learn of a grandmother murdered in her home, the first reaction of some is to ‘provide context’ and try to blame the raped women, beheaded baby, or the murdered grandmother. In other grotesque cases, they express simple support for the terrorists.”

Rabbi Wolpe said he believes it’s important for university administrators to speak up against the kind of violence Hamas perpetuated against Israel, and there were two important things he wanted people to know.

“The average student is not a political actor. The average student wants to study and learn and go and have a career, and have a family,” he said. “We overweigh sometimes those who are politically outspoken and think they represent all their fellow students. And that’s just not true.”

“It’s also really important that people understand antisemitism is a real and dangerous beast that is loose in our land,” Rabbi Wolpe said. “And we have to take it seriously.”